By Nick Gallo
Can a nutritional supplement available at health food stores and over the Internet battle the pain and symptoms of osteoarthritis? Thanks to positive reports from patients and a second look at early studies, some mainstream doctors and researchers are beginning to think the idea has merit.
The supplement consists of glucosamine (glue-COSE-uh-mean) sulfate and chondroitin (con-DROY-tin) sulfate, which are synthetic versions of compounds made by the body to help form cartilage. In osteoarthritis, a wear-and-tear condition that affects 16 million Americans, spongy cartilage that cushions the ends of bone joints breaks down, causing pain, stiffness, and deformity.
Traditionally, physicians treat osteoarthritis with prudent exercise, muscle-strengthening, and anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin and ibuprofen) to ease the pain. However, these drugs can cause serious side effects, such as gastrointestinal bleeding, and do not slow progression of arthritis.
Naturally produced glucosamine and chondroitin stimulate cartilage growth. Chondroitin also may block an enzyme that destroys cartilage. The notion that supplements might have benefit dates back to the early 1980s when a handful of European studies showed that glucosamine reduced joint pain and swelling. Other studies indicated chondroitin delivered similar relief.
The clinical trials were short-term, but should have attracted interest for follow-up study, except for one problem. The substances were not patentable, discouraging expensive research.
A good record
Over the years, veterinarians had good results using the glucosamine/chondroitin combination in dogs and other animals. Then, two years ago, the supplement zoomed into the spotlight when Dr. Jason Theodosakis, a sports medicine specialist at the University of Arizona, promoted use of the supplement in his best-selling "The Arthritis Cure." Since then, millions of arthritis sufferers have tried the supplement, producing enough anecdotal reports of success to prompt interest from experts.
After a recent review of the evidence, Roland Moskowitz, a rheumatologist and professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland concludes that the glucosamine/chondroitin remedy holds promise. "The studies were limited, but they were reasonably well done," he says. "There was enough smoke there to say this is worth investigating."